South Africa Experience 2014: Catherine Synnott

27th Jun


South Africa Experience 2014: Catherine Synnott

There I was last January 2014 thinking that another Christmas was over and the New Year welcomed in and now what! I was thinking that at last my time had come to do that “SOMETHING” that had been niggling away at the back of my mind for so long. I had recently taken early retirement from primary teaching, my beautiful little dog “Charlie” had passed away so I was now free to take the plunge. I thought that a spell abroad volunteering would be a worthwhile thing to do. I met with Sr. Dympna Clancy for a chat and my request to be considered as a VIDES volunteer was met with a positive and encouraging response….. So the planning started and I was on my way.

Family, friends, and parishioners helped me raise funds to take as a donation to the mission- we had settled on my working with the children from the squatter camps of Finetown in Laura Vicuna Educational Centre, Ennerdale, south of Johannesburg, South Africa. My sister Eilís, my friends Sylvia and Breda and I participated in the May Bank-Holiday Limerick Fun Run and the sponsorship money poured in. On June 5th I departed from Shannon Airport excited to be going at last and at the same time anxious that I would be up to the task.

My companion volunteer Bridget Leopold from Dublin joined me in Heathrow and we travelled on together to Johannesburg landing with the dawn on Friday 6th June. A great céad míle fáilte awaited us from Sr. Giovanna and Sr. Margaret in the arrival lounge of Tambo International Airport. They quickly spirited us away to Booysens for breakfast and then on to the Bosco Youth Centre in Walkerville. This was to be our base for the next four months.

We commuted each day to the school in Ennerdale. There we quickly got stuck in. I taught children from grades 2 and 3 literacy, numeracy and English language, and Bridget worked with grade 1. I also supported the teachers whenever possible with planning, organisation and methodologies. We were met with a great spirit of friendship and generosity from Sisters Margaret, Lydia and Noelle, Fr. Seán McKeown and from all the teachers, staff and children. In no time we felt part of the school. The children responded with joy and fun to their new “Mam Catherina” and “Sister Bridget”- laughing at our attempts to pronounce and spell their names and bursting with laughter when I mistook a boy for a girl and visa versa. They were so wrapped up for the cold weather that I could not distinguish the younger ones.
The donation money was well spent on teaching resources and supplies which were badly needed, and also on the daily feeding programme that Sr. Margaret ran –supplying breakfast and lunch each day to the pupils.

All was not plain sailing for us however. Living conditions were hard. The bitter cold, the biting wind and dust clouds (signposts of winter in this part of Africa), the need for vigilance at all times when away from our base because of the high incidences of crime, the difficult home circumstances of the children, and isolation from family and friends for example, challenged our resilience. None-the-less these factors did not stop us from getting on with our mission. There was great satisfaction in seeing the joy and delight of the children when they made progress with their schoolwork, English language and social skills.
All too soon our time drew to a close and Bridget and I departed for home in early October.

Now that I’m home I wonder sometimes about my new South African friends and how they are getting on. I am cheered by memories of the eager smiling faces that greeted me each morning in school and saddened that I am no longer with them. I hear echoes of them calling “Mam Catherina” and see again the joy in their little faces when they realised that they had completed an exercise without help. How difficult it was to leave them behind! But that’s teaching for you as I know from years of experience- striving to help children become independent learners, raising their self-esteem and then having to let them go. The parting however is never easy especially when the children concerned have so many obstacles to overcome in their lives.

It was a great privilege to have been given the opportunity by the Salesian sisters to work with the children of Finetown. The experience was hugely rewarding and fulfilling for me. The joyful memories of my time in Ennerdale will remain with me forever.

Thank you Sr. Dympna for your support and encouragement. Sincere thanks to Sr. Giovanna, Sr. Margaret and the other sisters in South Africa for welcoming me to their mission.

Bail ó Dhia oraibh go léir,
Catherine Synnott

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